Review of Lanfranc’s Monastic Constitutions

The Monastic Constitutions of LanfrancThe Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc by Lanfranc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an edition and translation by David Knowles of the monastic constitutions prepared by Lanfranc of Canterbury for the monastic community under his care at Christ Church, Canterbury. Lanfranc was Archbishop of Canterbury 1070-1089, having previously been at Bec in Normandy. Lanfranc was part of the large movement of reform in eleventh-century Europe, and one of the aspects of reform was the reform of monastic houses. Christ Church, Canterbury, like Durham and a few others, is a unique English phenomenon — a priory connected to a cathedral where the bishop takes the place of the abbot.

The purpose of monastic constitutions such as these was to lay out the nitty-gritty of how the Rule of St Benedict was to be applied, or how various aspects of life untouched by Benedict are to play out in monastic life. Lanfranc ackowledges herein that there is a diversity of times and places, and not every monastery will live the Rule in the same fashion — this is acceptable, so long as they strive for the same lofty goals that inhabit the Rule of St Benedict. Lanfranc made use of continental constitutions in putting this document together, especially those of Cluny.

If you come to this text seeking the richness of medieval ‘spirituality’ or monastic wisdom to apply to your own life, you will leave disappointed. The entire first half of the book is taken up with a description of the daily round of liturgy in its manifestation throughout the different feasts of the Christian year. The second half deals with various aspects of the rest of monastic life, beginning with office-bearers from the abbot to the infirmarian, and then discussing different topics, concluding with treatment of the sick and then the dead.

What the varied and extensive liturgical discussions revealed to me was the fact that there was very little time for much else in a community following these constitutions — whether reading, copying manuscripts, manual labour, mystical contemplation, etc. It is clear that these activities, especially the former two, occurred at Canterbury (we have too many Christ Church manuscripts to say otherwise), but this community was not living the relatively simple round of the hours found in Benedict. As Knowles notes in the introduction, it is precisely this liturgical complication and exuberance that is one of the targets of the reforms in the next century, particularly that of the Cistercians.

Finally, this volume closes with an edition of another text from Canterbury about the receiving and training of novices. This is also a most interesting text.

If you are interested in how the daily lives of monks played out in the later eleventh century, this book will be of some interest, but it will not stand alone, its main thrust being liturgy. Yet that, in and of itself, is worthy of note.

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